I suspect that Mom was really more relieved than disappointed, since live pine trees actually tend to be more trouble than the artificial ones—they need watering, like any other plant; they’re pricklier than a fake tree and thus more inconvenient to decorate; and they shed needles all over the floor. I remember one particular year when we experimented with getting a Blue Spruce instead of our usual Douglas Fir; it bled a pungent sap that attracted whole colonies of spiders to set up housekeeping in our tree—not a pretty sight.
But oh, the smell of a live tree! The crisp, clean, mountain-freshness of it… which would mingle with the scent of the vanilla candles my mother would light; and the apples she kept in bowls in the living room; and on Christmas Day itself, the aroma of stuffed turkey, glazed ham, mashed potatoes drowned in gravy, my mother’s incomparable lasagna, and the candied yams she insisted on making every year even though hardly anyone else ever ate them. (They looked festive, you had to say that much, at least.)
Trimming the tree was a big family occasion when I was young. It could not occur any earlier than December 16. (I no longer remember why it was that exact date.) Mom would crank up the air conditioner to arctic levels, and we would all gather around—furnished with marshmallow-laden cups of cocoa—to decorate the preferred Douglas Fir in my mother’s precisely decreed order: lights first, balls next to last (always glass or satin, because I suspect she would have died before plastic ornaments touched Her Tree), and tinsel last of all.
Our Christmas ornaments were not just a matter of pride, though, but of heritage. We had ornate filigreed balls passed down from my grandmother, over 40 Nativity scenes collected by my mother from all over the world, and even special unique ornaments that represented each of us kids. My two pilot brothers were characterized by miniature Santa Clauses flying a helicopter and a biplane, respectively; my musician brother got a little red-and-gold drum; and my symbol was a tiny teddy bear in a Santa hat and muffler, in honor of my then-vast stuffed bear collection.
When I was very, very little, Mom would let me fling the tinsel any which way I pleased, with a good deal more enthusiastic abandon than any semblance of aesthetic sensibility. I later found out that she would sneak out of bed at around three a.m. in order meticulously remove every last strand and rearrange the tinsel just so on the branches. I would simply be pleasantly surprised the next morning to see what a good job I’d done after all. I thought it was literally the magic of Christmas.
Around three years ago, I officially took possession of the artificial tree Mom bought after we stopped getting the live ones. I was able to dig it out of the storage room of our old house (Mom lives in the States now, so no one had used the tree in a while), but the ornaments were nowhere to be found. Every Nativity scene, every last filigreed ball, everything but a few forlorn strands of tinsel still clinging to a branch or two.
I could have cried.
Now Christmas décor—even the kind that is not quite glass and satin—costs money, so I just bought three sets of ornaments that year; and every year Dean and I buy one or two more sets to add to it. (Always red or green or gold, because my mother taught me that any other color combination is simply not Christmas.) This year, we replaced the Santa we used to use for the treetop with a star, because Sage wanted the job of putting the final touch on the tree, and nothing but a proper golden star would do for her.
It’s a gorgeous tree—full and fluffy, the kind you see in department store windows. But it’s still fake; and it doesn’t smell like much of anything (once you get the store room mustiness out of it); and the Christmas balls, I have to confess, are pure plastic. But it belonged to my family, and now it belongs to our family.
And little by little, year by year, we’re making it real.
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